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Harvard professor accused of research fraud files defamation lawsuit against university, academics

Harvard Business School would not discuss the lawsuit Wednesday.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/file

After being accused of research fraud, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino filed a defamation and discrimination lawsuit Wednesday against Harvard University and three academics who detailed the fraud allegations in their blog.

The 100-page lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Boston, names Harvard Business School dean Srikant Datar as well as three authors of the Data Colada blog, who alleged in a four-part series that four academic articles Gino cowrote contained fraudulent data. The three named authors are professors Uri Simonsohn, of Esade Business School in Spain; Leif Nelson, at the University of California, Berkeley; and Joseph Simmons, at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Harvard Business School would not discuss the lawsuit Wednesday. The named defendants did not respond to requests for comment.

The Data Colada series, which followed an initial report by The Chronicle of Higher Education in June about Harvard’s investigation into a paper Gino coathored, quickly made national headlines and sent shock waves through academia. Two of the articles named in the Data Colada series have since been retracted, with a third set to be retracted next month.

Following an internal 18-month investigation by Harvard into Gino’s work, a three-person investigative committee found in March that she was responsible for “research misconduct,” according to Gino’s lawsuit. Gino has been placed on unpaid administrative leave for two years.

But the lawsuit alleges that Harvard failed to make that determination of misconduct in accordance with its own policies.

In the filing, Gino, a renowned behavioral scientist who studies the psychology of decisions, denied having ever falsified or fabricated data. She alleged that Harvard’s investigation into her work was unfair and biased.

The lawsuit alleges that the committee did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Gino “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” falsified or fabricated data, as Harvard policy required, and “ignored” exculpatory evidence. The suit also decries Data Colada’s posts as a “vicious, defamatory smear campaign.” The blog’s inquiries into Gino’s work initially sparked Harvard’s investigation.

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In a statement posted to LinkedIn Wednesday, Gino refuted allegations against her and explained her decision to take legal action against Harvard and Data Colada.

“I want to be very clear: I have never, ever falsified data or engaged in research misconduct of any kind,” she wrote. “Today I had no choice but to file a lawsuit against Harvard University and members of the Data Colada group, who worked together to destroy my career and reputation despite admitting they have no evidence proving their allegations.”

She added that the university and authors “reached outrageous conclusions based entirely on inference, assumption, and implausible leaps of logic.”

The lawsuit accuses all of the defendants of defamation, and also accuses Harvard of gender discrimination, breach of contract, and bad faith and unfair dealing with Gino, who has been a tenured professor of business administration at Harvard since 2014.

Gino was first notified by Harvard of fraud allegations against her work in October 2021, according to the suit. She then learned that the university would conduct its own investigation in April 2022.

The filing alleges that Harvard’s investigation committee interviewed six of Gino’s collaborators and two research assistants, all of whom defended the integrity of Gino’s practices and said they had no evidence Gino had ever pressured anyone to produce a specific result.

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The suit alleges that Harvard created a new interim research misconduct policy specifically to adjudicate Gino’s case after Data Colada “threatened” to post its allegations and subject the business school to “public scrutiny.”

Harvard “negotiated an agreement” with the blog writers in which the university would investigate Gino “in exchange for Data Colada’s silence” during the probe, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges that Datar accepted the committee’s final report and issued “overly harsh” sanctions on Gino. Datar’s decision immediately barred Gino from Harvard’s campus, revoked her named professorship, and banned her from publishing or circulating research through the business school’s platforms, the suit says.

Gino’s Harvard faculty webpage states that she is on administrative leave and no longer mentions the title she held as Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration. Her personal website says the titled role ended this year.

Gino is seeking damages of at least $25 million and injunctive relief, according to the suit.

“Harvard’s complete and utter disregard for evidence, due process and confidentiality should frighten all academic researchers. The university’s lack of integrity in its review process stripped Prof. Gino of her rights, career and reputation — and failed miserably with respect to gender equity,” Andrew T. Miltenberg, Gino’s lawyer, said in a statement. “The bias and uneven application of oversight in this case is appalling.”


Alex Koller can be reached at alex.koller@globe.com. Follow him @alexkoller_.